Vaccines available in the U.S. have been found to be effective against severe illness for all known variants. (Photo courtesy of Ochsner Health)

Seventy-one hospitals received their first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, in one of the first high-level descriptions of vaccinations in the state.

Louisiana received the full 39,000 doses allocated to it by the federal government, Edwards said.

Large shipments were allocated to major hospital systems across the state, which were responsible for distributing those shipments to other facilities in the system. Ochsner New Orleans received about 5,000 doses to distribute within Southeast Louisiana, and University Medical Center received about 3,000 for LCMC facilities. Ochsner received another 3,900 doses in Shreveport and Lafayette.

Another 3,900 for the Baton Rouge area were allocated to Our Lady of the Lake. And 975 each were sent to Willis Knighton-Shreveport and Christus St. Frances Cabrini in Alexandria.

But the majority of the 39,000 total doses — 21,450 — were allocated to a state contractor called Morris & Dickson that is responsible for shipping smaller units of vaccine to rural areas and smaller healthcare systems across the state.

Shipments directly from Pfizer come in pallets containing 975 doses, and any healthcare system that was allocated fewer than 975 would have received its shipment through Morris & Dickson.

Right now, the state hasn’t released comprehensive data on how those smaller shipments were distributed. According to news reports, one of those shipments went to Lake Charles Memorial Health System, which received 175 doses this week, and expects more on Friday.

Edwards said that about 7,000 vaccinations had been documented in the state’s immunization database, LINKS. 

“We’re working with the hospitals to get their vaccine data into the system and include it on our dashboard, and that does take some time,” he said, citing the lag time between filing physical paperwork and putting information online.

Interim Assistant Secretary of the Office of Public Health Dr. Joseph Kanter said that the state planned to publish comprehensive vaccination numbers on a dashboard starting next week.

Angel Doses

All of the state’s dosage estimates should be interpreted as lower bounds on the actual number of vaccines distributed.

Yesterday, the FDA announced that many vials containing vaccine held an extra dose because they’d been overfilled as a precaution against spills during shipping and handling. Most vials that were planned to contain five doses actually contain six, or even seven.

Kanter referred to the extra doses as “angel doses.”

That means the state may in practice have received thousands of extra doses. 

“We’ve been clear with Louisiana that we don’t want to waste any vaccine, so hospitals are using those extra doses,” Kanter said.

Those extra doses may present problems in the future, though. 

“This is very new. We don’t have a good sense yet from the manufacturer if there’s any way to predict how much” extra vaccine each vial contains, Kanter said.

That’s going to be important as the state distributes followpup doses in three weeks, since it will need to know how many extra people were vaccinated using the “angel doses.”

A second vaccine

The state also anticipates receiving shipments of a second vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, early next week, following a positive vote from an FDA advisory panel this afternoon.

Moderna’s vaccine, unlike Pfizer’s, can be stored at about the temperature of a standard freezer, making it easier to distribute widely. Because of that, the state plans to use the Moderna vaccines for employees and residents at long term care facilities, which are also in the first priority group.

Those vaccinations will be conducted through a federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS.

In a press conference yesterday, New Orleans City Health Director Jennifer Avegno said that the Moderna vaccine would also likely go to New Orleans Emergency Medical Service staff and Fire Department employees who respond to medical calls.

Kanter has said that the state expects to receive about 80,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine by December 27.

However, Edwards said that the state would not know about next week’s allocation of Pfizer vaccines until Friday. (Other states reported today that they were told to receive 30 percent fewer doses than they’d expected next week.)

“We’ve been told by General [Gustave Perna, who oversees Operation Warp Speed] himself that going forward, on Fridays, we will be given our allocation for the next week of each vaccine by type. Then we will put in our orders as to how much of each vaccine dose goes to which site over that next week,” he said.

Edwards again said that the state could not share details about subsequent prioritization groups, as it was still waiting on guidance from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

“We really don’t know yet what the allocations are going forward,” he said. “We are focused on equity. And we are going to be taking a hard look at the individuals who are in the hospital at any time.”

But he signalled that people at high risk of being hospitalized for COVID are likely to be high on the list, specifically referring to people over 65 or with comorbidities.

“If we’re trying to focus initially on preserving hospital capacity and saving lives, as we are, then [those people] are going to be a key component of the next order of priority,” Edwards said.